There are people we really love — friends and family we consistently enjoy and feel strong affection for.
There are people we completely despise — folks we positively can’t stand.
Then there is a category of people which sits right in between. You might call them “frenemies,” though the “enemy” part of that compound can feel like too strong a descriptor. Social scientists have a better term for these kinds of ties: “ambivalent relationships.”
Both positive and negative elements exist in every relationship. In a good, supportive relationship, the positive significantly outweighs the negative. In a bad, aversive relationship, the negative significantly outweighs the positive. In an ambivalent relationship, neither the positive nor the negative predominates; your feelings about the person are decidedly mixed. Sometimes this person is encouraging, and sometimes they’re critical. Sometimes they’re fun, and sometimes they’re a drag. Sometimes they’re there for you, and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes you really like and even love them, and sometimes they bug the ever-living tar out of you.
We can have ambivalent relationships with co-workers, friends, family, and even our spouses. And while we don’t tend to think about our ambivalent relationships as much as we do those on the more polarized ends of the affection spectrum, they actually make up about half of our social networks.
If we feel so lukewarm about ambivalent relationships, why do we end up in so many of them?
Sometimes you see enough good in a new acquaintance to feel intrigued, and to put aside their more annoying qualities to keep giving them chances and getting to know them. In the early stages of any relationship, its newness generates a dopamine-derived haze that magnifies the other person’s better qualities and downplays their flaws. However as time goes on, and this haze wears off, those flaws increasingly come to the fore and feel progressively more bothersome. But, by that time, you may have hung out enough with the person that it feels like you’re friends, and it’s hard to break up with a friend.
Sometimes the connection you feel with someone is very strong when you first meet, but over the subsequent years and decades, you change, and they change, so that your lifestyles, outlooks, and personalities end up more and more disparate. You still think of yourselves as friends, and still have a bond built on a shared history, but your connection is more conflicted than it once was.
Sometimes you’re friends with someone because your spouse is friends with their spouse. They’re not someone you would have actively chosen to be friends with, but because you spend time together as couples, you end up in a relationship, albeit an ambivalent one.
Sometimes you’re just thrown together with people. There are office colleagues and fellow church congregants and roommates who you neither strongly like nor strongly dislike, but that you come to feel quite familiar with because of how much time you spend together. Sometimes this familiarity rises to the level of affection, and sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes the relationship just kind of is what it is.
Sometimes you simply fail to invest in the maintenance of a marriage. At the start of the relationship, the positive greatly outweighed the negative; over time, and several seasons of neglecting to cultivate your connection, the latter has risen to the level of the former.
And, of course, there’s the whole dynamic of family. You may have grown up around certain blood relations, but you otherwise share little in common, and the fact you still get together is based more on biological bonds, and the expectations around filial piety and familial obligation, than genuine desire and enjoyment. You’re in fact more likely to have ambivalent relationships with family members than friends, which makes sense; while relationships with friends are a matter of voluntary choice, you end up connected to family members by chance.
Why Ambivalent Relationships Are So Terrible for You
Supportive relationships have been shown to buffer stress, boost resilience, and improve physical and mental health.
Aversive relationships have been shown to amplify stress, diminish resilience, and damage physical and mental health